South Korea says U.S. anti-missile system is operating and can defend against potential North Korean missiles

A U.S. supply ship sails in the waters off the Boso Peninsula, east of Tokyo, as it is escorted by Japanese destroyer Izumo Monday, May 1, 2017. Japanese media said the U.S. supply ship is expected to refuel other American warships, including the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. (Ren Onuma/Kyodo News via AP)
A U.S. supply ship sails in the waters off the Boso Peninsula, east of Tokyo, as it is escorted by Japanese destroyer Izumo Monday, May 1, 2017. Japanese media said the U.S. supply ship is expected to refuel other American warships, including the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. (Ren Onuma/Kyodo News via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A contentious U.S. anti-missile system based in southeastern South Korea can now defend against North Korean missiles, a South Korean official said Tuesday.

The Terminal High Altitude Defense system set up at a converted golf course in Seongju has “early capability” to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat, Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said. He didn’t say when Washington and Seoul expected THAAD to be operating fully.

The deployment has triggered anger from Seongju residents who fear North Korea may target their town and who worry about rumored health hazards linked to THAAD’s powerful radar.

People also debate whether the security benefits of THAAD would outweigh possible drawbacks if relations worsen with China, which sees the system as a threat, and they have been angered by President Donald Trump’s statement that he would make South Korea pay $1 billion for the system.

The THAAD battery had originally been scheduled to enter operation by the end of the year. When completed, it will consist of six truck-mounted launchers that can fire up to 48 interceptors toward incoming missiles detected by the system’s x-band radar.

Critics question whether the United States and Seoul’s caretaker government are rushing to set up THAAD before an election May 9 that will bring a change in the government in Seoul, which became necessary after Park Geun-hye was impeached and ousted from the presidency in a corruption scandal.

Front-runner Moon Jae-in, a liberal who calls for engagement with North Korea, has said he would reconsider THAAD if he becomes president.

North Korea conducted another missile test on Saturday, which reportedly failed soon after launch, and its Foreign Ministry said Monday the country will speed up measures to bolster its nuclear program “at the maximum pace.”

A statement circulated by North Korea’s U.N. Mission says the government is ready to respond to any option taken by the United States.

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